Wesleyan students demand divestment from prisons, fossil fuels and Israeli occupation

On 16 April, nearly forty students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut held a sit-in protest inside the office of university President Michael Roth. They demanded that the college divest from fossil fuels, the prison industry and companies that profit from the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Wesleyan students say that they left the sit-in the next day “with an agreement from president Roth to investigate the current status of the university’s investments in private prisons, to publicly state his endorsement of prison divestment and proceed to support divestment of any holdings Wesleyan may have.”

Roth stated his commitment to further dialogue on divestment from fossil fuels and the Israeli occupation.

Students say that they chose that day to hold the sit-in because it was the 37th anniversary of the day Roth, as a student in 1978, participated in a sit-in to demand divestment from the South African apartheid regime.

“Connected systems”

Wesleyan students said in a statement that “upon arrival, the students read a manifesto co-signed by Students for Justice in Palestine, Wes, Divest!, the campus fossil fuel divestment campaign, and Ujamaa, an identity group for Black students.”

Students last year passed a resolution barring investment in Israeli occupation profiteers and de-shelved Sabra hummus brands in university dining halls.

Sabra is a frequent target for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns because it is partially owned by the Israeli company Strauss, which actively supports the Golani brigade, an “elite” unit in the Israeli army which is responsible for grave human rights abuses.

Students have also been campaigning for fossil fuel divestment for several years.

Abby Cuniff, a Wesleyan student and member of Wes, Divest! spoke to The Electronic Intifada on 17 April. She participated in the sit-in.

“We went into the protest without any idea of what was going to come out of it, or any set negotiation tactics,” Cuniff said.

“It was an amazing experience, fundamentally because of the coalition that came out of it and the thinking that we were doing for the whole period of time that we were there about how the systems are all connected,” she added.

Listen to the interview with Cuniff via the media player above.


Roth said he didn’t see how the three issues were connected, Cuniff said, and he balked at the comparison between their activism and his previous activism around South African apartheid.

Roth has publicly condemned the academic boycott of Israel and the BDS movement in general.

As The Electronic Intifada noted, in December 2013 Roth wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed condemning the American Studies Association’s vote to support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, which he called a “politically retrograde resolution” hiding under “the guise of phony progressivism.”

“Entangled issues”

“There was a lot of education that happened during the sit-in about Palestinian water rights and the manipulation of environmental resources,” Cuniff said, “and specifically the disadvantaging [of the] Palestinian people through the companies that are allowed to exploit [Palestinian land] and restrictions that are placed on the Palestinian people.”

Discussions between members of the Wes, Divest! coalition have been happening all year, Cuniff said, and students have met with Palestine solidarity activists, prison abolitionist activists and environmental justice campaigners who are working together in affected communities around the US.

“Through the sit-in, talking about all these issues together, we became [stronger] advocates,” Cuniff said. “It’s so hard to untangle these issues once you realize how entangled they are.”

The coalition is excited, she said, to encourage other student activist organizations around the US in “setting up a space for these groups to work together — and be really effective together.”

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).